Can the Tea Party Cross the Delaware?

Angry rebels have upended Establishment Republicans in Kentucky, Nevada, Alaska and Utah this year. Is Mike Castle next?

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Daryl Peveto / LUCEO

Denver, Colorado, March 31, 2010 - Debbie Lee, whose son Marc Alan Lee, was the first Navy Seal killed in action in Iraq, speaks to the crowd of around 500 during a Tea Party Express rally on the Capitol steps, the ninth in its 43-city tour across the country.

In any other election cycle, at any other moment in Delaware's political history, Mike Castle would be coasting to victory. A two-time governor and longtime member of Congress, Castle, 71, has $2.6 million in the bank, a statewide approval rating in the high 60s and the backing of just about every official Republican institution in the country, including the Delaware state party, which in May endorsed him to run for Vice President Joe Biden's old Senate seat.

But in Castle's more than 40 years as a politician, he has never had to deal with someone quite like Amy Kremer, a former flight attendant from Atlanta who arrived in Delaware on Tuesday, only one week before the Sept. 14 Republican primary. Hours later, she gathered reporters and activists in a Wilmington hotel to officially christen Castle the latest target of the voter rebellion known as the Tea Party. "The time has come for us to put down the protest signs and pick up the campaign signs and get engaged," Kremer announced, adding that her group would spend at least $250,000 to oust the Delaware GOP's political patriarch in favor of Christine O'Donnell, a tenacious conservative pundit and Tea Party standard bearer. "We have stood on the sidelines for long enough," Kremer said.

Just months ago, the views of a self-styled Citizen Jane would have been little more than a curiosity. Hardly anyone noticed in January when her group, the Tea Party Express, ran television ads in Massachusetts to support the long-shot election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate. Nor were the political cognoscenti particularly interested in April when the group endorsed Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, a little-known Republican also-ran then polling at just 5% in that state's GOP primary. And the smart money scoffed at Kremer's subsequent push for Alaska's Joe Miller, a local attorney on a seemingly impossible quest to unseat Senator Lisa Murkowski.

But then Brown, Angle and Miller all stunned the handicappers by winning their races, proving that the Tea Party was more than just a ragtag group with funny hats and signs. The Express and other Tea Party groups have demonstrated that Republican voters given a choice between the Establishment and an upstart will usually choose the outsider in 2010. "I think everybody is shocked," says Kremer, whose cell-phone ringtone is Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America." "We do it because we believe."

Though the Tea Party's successes so far have played out in GOP primaries, Kremer and her troops have the potential to transform the U.S. Senate. In addition to Angle and Miller, who both have solid shots at victory in November, two other Tea Party favorites, Utah's Mike Lee and Kentucky's Rand Paul, are favored to win. That means the Senate could have as many as four new Tea Party champions next year. In a capital city where compromise has long been out of fashion, it may soon go missing altogether.

Laying Siege to a Castle
This is of special concern to Castle, the onetime prohibitive favorite for the Biden seat, who has spent his career as one of the last of a dwindling political breed: the moderate northeastern Republican. Now he is playing defense. Two days after the Alaska election in late August, he reversed a long-standing campaign policy of ignoring his primary rival O'Donnell. His once soft and fuzzy campaign, which showed a Colbert Report clip on its home page, launched a vicious new online attack hub, RealChristine.com, and a new television ad that focuses on O'Donnell's troubled financial history, with a record of school and campaign debts. On Capitol Hill, party bosses like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell looked on approvingly, hopeful that the rebellion could be contained. "I hear that Congressman Castle is not ignoring his opponent and has paid a lot of attention to what has happened this spring," the leader told ABC News.

But Kremer's traveling operation has already reshaped the race. O'Donnell's once foundering campaign, which was running on fumes after raising only $30,000 in August, has repeatedly raised more than $20,000 in a day in September through online contributions, O'Donnell says. The Express pulled into Delaware after Labor Day and immediately began holding rallies and planning a talk-radio fundraising drive. And though a week is not a long time, it's enough to turn a sleepy race into a showdown for the soul of a party. "This is not the year to have the political profile of someone like my opponent," says O'Donnell, who has been attacking Castle for his moderate voting record, including support for President Obama's climate-change legislation. "He is a big-spending, liberal, career politician."

One factor in the Express's success is its targeting of states with relatively small populations — a practice that makes upsets easier to pull off. In Delaware, for example, both campaigns expect only about 40,000 voters in the Republican primary, a number that would nonetheless far exceed the norm in a state with little history of contested GOP races. That means O'Donnell could win by luring just 2% of the state's population, or about 1 in 9 of the state's registered Republicans, to the polls. The small turnout, says O'Donnell, "definitely works in our favor."

In the meantime, Kremer and the Tea Party activists are trying to turn the race into yet another nationwide referendum on what they believe to be the exclusive nature of the Republican Party. Both the state and national parties opted to endorse Castle months before the primary, all but relegating O'Donnell to the fringe and feeding the Tea Party claim that politics has become little more than an elite club. Kremer's outfit spent more than $1 million on television, radio and print advertising in Nevada and Alaska, money that was collected in donations of $5,000 or less from a network of 400,000 online supporters. Now she is running the same play in Delaware. "The Republican Party's behavior here is just unacceptable, and it's absolutely what we are fighting across the country," Kremer told me after the press event. "They are acting like they own this seat."

Such populist pronouncements come easily to Kremer, who entered the political arena less than two years ago by organizing some of the first Tea Party rallies via Twitter. She later joined the Tea Party Express, a group founded in California by Sal Russo, a longtime political consultant who worked as a personal aide to California Governor Ronald Reagan in the late 1960s and later advised Jack Kemp. The group has crisscrossed the country, drumming up support with a bus tour that features patriotic musical acts — from rap to country — that inveigh against the evils of Big Government and health care reform. Russo says he senses a return to the political tumult that shook up the Republican Party in 1966, when Reagan was first elected governor. "There was this futility that people felt and frustration that the Republican Party wasn't going anywhere," Russo says. "People are fearful."

But even in this time of unease, Kremer and her troops may be asking a lot of Delaware Republicans to lift an untested hopeful like O'Donnell over a veteran like Castle. O'Donnell came of age in the era of cable-TV politics, fashioning herself as a sort of all-purpose conservative pundit and commentator. She spoke out against premarital sex on an MTV show, Sex in the '90s, and has appeared on everything from The O'Reilly Factor to The Glenn Beck Program. She has run for the Senate three times, including once in 2008 as the party's nominee. That year she attracted nearly 141,000 votes but still lost to Biden by about 30 points even though he was also running for Vice President. Though she has worked in public relations in the past, O'Donnell told the Delaware News Journal in March that she was doing "odd jobs" to pay her living expenses.

But there is little disqualifying about a thin résumé in 2010, when experience in government is sometimes seen as worse than the plague. GOP chairman Tom Ross, who is backing Castle, refuses to speculate about what the state party will do in the event of an O'Donnell victory, though he hastens to add, "It literally could bring down the whole ticket." But such concerns matter little to the national Tea Party movement, which has tapped into a deeper well of discontent. Nothing is certain in a political climate in which an amateur with a Twitter account can make the most powerful Republicans in the nation fear for their jobs.